What the heck is...

What the heck is… a chatbot?

By Alex Wood 12 April 2016
image credit: istock/NI QIN

Explaining the buzzwords of the moment: What's a chatbot and why is everyone talking about them this week?

Our weekly series What The Heck Is… sheds light on the strange unexplained acronyms and unfamiliar buzzwords that creep into our everyday lives.

Picture the next time you book a table at your favourite restaurant.

Now imagine instead of calling, you could do it all from one chat app. All the back and forth done effortlessly through text and your booking would be confirmed in minutes. Except there wasn’t another human at the other end of the line, it was a computer.

That’s just one example of a chatbot, a hot topic that’s got everybody excited.

Put simply, chatbots simulate natural conversation with humans over internet chat services. If you’ve ever used “live chat” for customer support on a website, you’ll find the experience similar, minus the actual human being at the other end of the line.

What’s all the fuss about?

The key here is automation – and that’s  why chatbots and artificial intelligence is a booming industry.

Call centre workers are expensive for businesses of all sizes and yet in reality, the majority customers have the same enquiries that could easily be automated.


Brands like Made.com are already using Hero app for customer service chats

For customers it means getting served immediately, and for businesses it could mean dramatically lower costs.

Read more: The death of the helpline is here

Facebook marching ahead

Chatbots will be in the news in a big way this week as Facebook is widely tipped to announce new chatbot features at its annual developer conference. These new tools will allow developers to use Facebook’s expertise to build their own chatbot services in a matter of weeks, instead of years.

If successful, you could be ‘chatting’ with brands you know and love later this year instead of long waits for a customer service call centre.

The bad news?

Chatbots will not be good news for anyone in the customer service industry.

As with any new development there are winners and losers. We don’t expect all workers to be replaced overnight and there will certainly be a place for specialised face-to-face interactions, but the writing is on the wall for menial everyday enquiries.

There are also concerns about what chatbots could mean for our privacy, especially when it comes to advertising.

Some have speculated Facebook will create adverts that once clicked, will transform into a ‘chat’ with a company. Or worse still, brands could interrupt our real chats with our friends with “friendly” offers of discounts related to the very thing we’re talking about. As futuristic as that might sound, it’s an extension of what Google already does with Gmail, which scans our emails and serves up tailored adverts.

Our weekly series What The Heck Is… exists to shed light on the strange unexplained acronyms and unfamiliar buzzwords that creep into our everyday lives.

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The death of the helpline is here